Most people could easily pick their favorite musical artist, but for me it varies depending on my mood. However, if I were to go to any band as a pick for my favorite, Talking Heads is up there. A combination of their quirky sound and the experimentation with genres as they changed through the years mixed With David Byrne’s unmistakable personality makes them really unlike anything else of their era. It’s actually pretty hard to nail down just which genre they belong in. It’s easy to just say “Alternative” but with their songs blending everything from rock, punk, new wave, reggae and funk, this complicates such an easy categorization.
Now, knowing I’m going to go back into this list probably in the next few weeks and find something out of place, I preface this saying I am fairly settled on the positions of each song, but given the way I can look twice at something, I may feel the need to correct things in the future. So, consider that a comical form of fair-warning.
Without further ado…
25. “The Lady Don’t Mind” from Little Creatures (1985)
The smooth 80’s groove of this tune is one that successfully blends what Talking Heads was at their peak into their more mainstream sound of Little Creatures. The build up from the almost lounge-music style of the verse into an upbeat energetic pop chorus, complete with a flashy brass section, is seamless. As Talking Heads creeped up on their 10th Anniversary in the mid-80’s, it was fairly obvious they were getting tired, and Little Creatures, despite having some good songs, definitely reflected the band’s weary pace as they rounded off their final three albums.
24. “Perfect World” from Little Creatures (1985)
Also from Little Creatures, “Perfect World” blends a poppy blues ballad with a little bit of country and also a somewhat of an early-60’s feel. It shows some of drummer Chris Frantz’s influence on a few of Talking Heads’ jazzier tunes, but there is also an airy, almost dreamy mood to the song. Talking Heads aren’t often remembered for their softer, more melodic songs, but Perfect World is one of the best slow grooves of the 80’s, a decade filled with otherwise sleepy, boring pop ballads.
23. “Wild Wild Life” from True Stories (1986)
By the time their penultimate album True Stories came around, it was obvious things were slowing down. The distinctly “Talking Heads” sound was nearly absent, having been lost with age as the quirky, experimental period of the 80’s shifted over into artists’ mostly-failed attempts to make tunes that would outlast their time on the charts. As a result, True Stories is a distinctly-corporate-sounding album. It isn’t so much bad as it is forgettable. Wild Wild Life, however, stands out. It is a fast, energetic, and just fun track. 1986 was a year plagued by sleeping post-new wave ballads and absurd hair metal in the other extreme. Hip hop’s growing relevance in the pop charts was edging out a lot of the established artists of the time as well and as the college rock mainliners began the transformation of alternative rock that would manifest in the mainstream by the mid-90’s, it was necessary for Talking Heads to put out a single like this. It kept many of their past musical ideas far better than most of the other tracks from True Stories and is fun and catchy enough to share chart success. Wild Wild Life would be one of Talking Heads’ most successful singles as well, and featured an award-winning music video with a pre-fame John Goodman.
22. “Warning Sign” from More Songs About Buildings and Food (1979)
The strange and haunting sounds of Warning Sign filled with Tina Weymouth accentuating bass lines give this odd song a smooth feel despite having one of the oddest lyrical melodies of all of Talking Heads’ 70’s tracks, and that’s saying something! Warning Sign is catchy, though and musically it holds its own for me.
21. “Nothing But (Flowers)” from Naked (1988)
After more than a decade, Talking Heads did not transition well into the late-80’s. Most of their tracks from Naked fail to resonate however Flowers, with its plucky island sound, has a distinct charm that is a nice alternative to the cheesy dance hip hop, New Jack Swing, and sleepy love ballads of the late-80’s. It’s a particularly clever perspective on a tired environmental theme as well, as nature reclaims all that was overtaken in the past with a sort of mournful attitude, despite the surface cheer of the track. Some may know this song from its use as the opening credits theme to Kevin Smith’s “Clerks II”.
20. “Road to Nowhere” from Little Creatures (1985)
The unmistakable choral intro to Road to Nowhere leads into a bright track about falling into oblivion. The march rhythm with the accordion riff and the low vocal key give the song an almost childlike feel, and keeps that distinguishing Talking Heads charm alive nearly a decade after their debut album.
19. “Mind” from Fear of Music (1979)
Mind may be one of the best tracks to convey Talking Heads’ stranger sounds to a newcomer. It’s melodic enough to keep it from being too off-putting and Weymouth is at her best with a catchy bass slide that is distinct in its execution, sounding almost synth-like and fitting the off-kilter vocals perfectly.
18. “Don’t Worry About The Government” from Talking Heads: ‘77 (1977)
Easily one of their strangest tunes, this is a fluffy little anthem about absorbing one’s self into modern comforts obliviously; almost selfishly. The first time I heard it I was captivated by just how odd it was. It is hands down unlike anything else I had heard before at that time and still today I would have trouble picking a specific song that sounds anything like it.
17. “Take Me To The River” from More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
The Talking Heads cover of the classic tune by the legendary Al Green (the original of which is considered by many to be one of the greatest songs of all time) is easily one of the best covers ever recorded, standing alongside Nirvana’s rendition of “The Man Who Sold the World” and the Late Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine In Nails’ “Hurt”. Implementing their funk and rock influences into a version of the song that keeps the soulful tones of the original but adding a new technical musicality that is distinctly their own, Byrne and crew craft a catchy classic that, at least to me, is as good as the original.
16. “Pulled Up” from Talking Heads: ‘77 (1977)
David Byrne’s ode to inspiration from his parents is a cheery pop rock piece that sets a tone for what the band will become by the time Talking Heads would peak in the early-80’s. Their unique mixing of genres and Byrne’s characteristically-cartoonish vocals are odd, but there is yet something inescapable about the childlike nature of “Pulled Up”.
15. “I Get Wild / Wild Gravity” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)
By the 80’s, the band had already experimented with various genres of music but the Carribean study in “I Get Wild” is both dark and hypnotic. Tina Weymouth’s aggressive slap bass line dominates as the musical refrain and the culmination of the entire band vocalizing creates a moody, chant-like slow jam.
14. “Once In A Lifetime” from Remain In Light (1980)
At the dawn of the MTV era, a few videos come to mind, but few are as odd as the one for “Once In A Lifetime”. While other videos featured bands in costumes simply miming their performances, this video features David Byrne in his famous over-sized suit, sweating, panting, and gasping out the spoken word lyrics of this synth-pop classic while posing as though he’s taking an oath. Talking Heads did not do a whole lot of songs in this genre, but the few they did do are definitely unique, and this is one of their best.
13. “And She Was” from Little Creatures (1985)
While many of Talking Heads’ songs are experimental or just plain strange, “And She Was” just may be their most “normal” song. It doesn’t do too much out of the ordinary and could have been recorded by just about anyone. For that reason, it doesn’t exactly feel like a Talking Heads song. Still, it’s excellent; one of my favorites of the decade. It’s catchy, bright and its story of a young hippie tripping balls on a hillside is told in an almost dreamlike way, as if you could see what she’s seeing.
12. “No Compassion” from Talking Heads: ‘77 (1977)
The dreamy opening leading into the upbeat verse then driving straight into an aggressive chorus makes “No Compassion” one of their heaviest songs. One could imagine this being performed by a more rough-edge rock group and would be a pretty intense drive. Spoken from the perspective of a person with no sympathy for anyone around them, it takes a pretty nihilistic tone, but is in a way self-critical at the same time.
11. “Pull Up The Roots” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)
Back to Talking Heads’ funk inspiration, this Parliament-esque jam features some of the best bass and rhythm guitar of any song of its time. Everything about “Pulled Up The Roots”, from its technical production to the odd shouted, lyrics give it fluidity, but there is still a lot of speculation on the Internet as to what the song is actually about. It is known that, while they did experiment with drugs, Byrne in-particular always found the effects to be disconcerting or even disturbing by his own admission in an interview, still there is little doubt that drug use and possibly hallucinations inspired the imagery in “Pull Up The Roots”, while alternatively it could be about leaving an old life behind, or having it taken from you.
10. “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)
Love songs were not David Byrne’s forte. He actually kind of hates them. He’s described typical love songs as “corny” and “lame”. His personal life reflects this, as does the band’s unceremonious breakup, one that did not end well. Byrne was described as unsympathetic, not able to share a kinship with the rest of the band. This isolationism is reflexive in a lot of his songwriting, including in this song. Another hit from their peak, “This Must Be The Place” intentionally implements a simplistic musical melody over a series of lines which, on their own have a sentimentality, but together do not make a great deal of sense, something Byrne did intentionally.
9. “I Zimbra” from Fear of Music (1979)
As an ode to nonsense, I Zimbra chants the words of Dadaist poet Hugo Ball over an African-inspired musical piece. The lyrics mean nothing; intentionally nothing. That is the nature of Dada, a movement from the early 20th Century designed to oppose rigid standards for what could be classified as “art”. Dadaist artists intentionally chose to make things nonsensical, pointless or even ugly. As a song, “I Zimbra” may not mean anything, but it sure is catchy.
8. “Burning Down The House” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)
Said to be about a sort of “personal rebirth” by some interpreters, this is yet another song by Byrne that is full of lines that stand alone, but mean nothing together; still being characteristic of Byrne’s lyricism. Not too far removed from much of the college rock of the time, including that of bands like R.E.M., the themes of Burning Down the House are likely more Freudian than objective. The song itself is a classic, though. The famous intro that leads into a pop groove is unmistakable as one of the best song intros of all time.
7. “Found A Job” from More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
It’s yet another disjointed, disconnected examination of relationships from David Byrne; This time centering on a couple whose relationship is being torn apart by something as minor as the content of TV and the picture quality. Instead, the couple, in-protest, gathers everyone they know to make their own shows that saves their relationship and brightens everyone around them. The message of “Found A Job” is summed up in the line “If your work isn’t something you love, then something isn’t right”. If you cannot find satisfaction, and everything feels as though it is stalled, create the thing you are missing as best you can, and you do not have to do it alone.\
6. “Psycho Killer” from Talking Heads: ‘77 (1977)
It’s a pretty straightforward title, isn’t it? “Psycho Killer” is told from the perspective of a serial killer who is either rejecting the reality he is one, or knows what he is but is trying to cover it up. The seemingly-random French, according to Byrne, is the killer trying to mask his psychopathy in intelligence. The first verse could be a confrontation that the killer is having one a person he knows, or even with himself. He’s warning that he could kill anyone at any time. This truly ominous single was most people’s introduction to Talking Heads in the late 70’s at the iconic CBGB in New York and had to be more than a little unsettling. During a period marked by fear and paranoia about serial killers, as it was the era of Ted Bundy and The Son of Sam, “Psycho Killer” resonated despite having actually been performed as far back as 1975 and possibly written even before then.
5. “Girlfriend Is Better” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)
At this point there is a theme, David Byrne is a weird guy. “Girlfriend Is Better” is incredibly cryptic. The title and chorus refer to a girlfriend, but nothing in the verse implies such a relationship exists, in fact it seems as though it is written as a response to someone there but it comes off as almost exasperated, even disturbing. The jumping music sounds like a more traditional funk-inspired Talking Heads track, but there is an eerie, even angry, mood to the music.
4. Crosseyed And Painless from Remain In Light (1980)
Attempting to make sense of a complex world by over-intellectualizing everything, Byrne examines all of the things around him, making him feel very uncomfortable. This could be another song specifically about drug use, or it could be about a person struggling to function in a confounding world. This song as awesome! The fast bass riff, the synth and the falsetto chorus succeed in emphasizing the musical capabilities of the band as a whole.
3. “Making Flippy Floppy” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)
A song about going from youth to adulthood, this one is definitely odd but not entirely cryptic. “Making Flippy Floppy” features one of Weymouth’s best basslines and the anthemic chorus highlights why Speaking In Tongues is arguably their best album.
2. “Life During Wartime” from Fear of Music (1979)
Often called their best song, “Life During Wartime” explores desperation in a time of great strife. When it comes to life or death, none of the things we think we really need can lose all of their value. Everything we care about can be stripped from us in a moment and the only thing left is the need to survive. The song’s synth intro and fast jam makes for one of their best upbeat songs and easily one of the best songs of the 70’s.
1. Slippery People from Speaking In Tongues (1980)
My #1 pick is probably their single most underrated track. “Slippery People” is a funk groove with a cryptic message. Allusions to religion and possibly hallucinogenic experiences compose an image of some sort of psychotropic awakening. The line “Turn like a wheel inside a wheel” is a line from Hawthorne’s “The Crucible”, written in inspiration from the Bible, and lines like “Look at his face (the lord won’t mind)” can make one wonder if this is in reference to a misunderstanding of images and ideas of the time as being anti-religious, as this was the heyday of the “Satanic Panic”, an era where cultural iconoclasts were finding hidden Biblical or Satanic messages in everything from rock music to bar codes. It is possible this is conveying that not everyone or everything is a sign from God, or being of the Devil. As for the music, just listen to it. “Slippery People” is so good that even the average non-Talking Heads fan would have to admit that it is a pretty excellent track.